Sometimes, life can just plain suck. It can seem like the whole wide world has conspired to make you feel like you don’t matter. Feeling like the recipient of a thousand cold shoulders, you stagger back to your place feeling alone and forgotten. What to do?
You can call up your mom or a friend or snuggle up on the couch with your significant other. Yes, those are all good suggestions.
Or you can do all of those things and then watch one of these 10 movies. Each one of them is guaranteed to warm you right back up.
1. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
The cinematic equivalent of a home cooked meal, this simple, near perfect tale of kindness given and kindness received will comfort anyone longing for a reminder of just how good people can be to one another.
Bedford Falls’ greatest son, George Bailey – played to perfection by the legendary Jimmy Stewart – is in a dark bit of trouble and it takes the help of a 2nd class Angel named Clarence to make him see his way to the light.
Flip through the channels anytime in December and you are bound to see one or more of them showing this Christmas time classic. That makes perfect sense. Not only does the movie take place around Christmas time, but it is actually based on a short story that its writer – Philip Van Doren Stern – had printed up in Christmas cards and distributed to his friends and family.
An emotional tour-de-force, legendary director Frank Capra and a perfectly cast collection of actors wring every last tear out of you and then some.
A two hour long hug. A life affirming lullaby for the wounded child in all of us. An antidote for the cold. All that and more.
2. Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995)
To connect or not connect – that is the question in this beautiful little film written by Jersey born writer, Paul Auster.
A collection of loosely linked stories and loosely and not so loosely linked characters, this moving tale is made up of both the realistic and the whimsical. Some stories are of the everyday variety, while others deftly step into more fanciful and poetic territory without losing their emotional resonance.
Moments of real beauty appear out of nowhere. It’s that kind of film.
In one of the stories, Harvey Keitel plays Auggie Wren, the owner of a cigar shop. William Hurt plays Paul Benjamin – a writer and one of his customers. One night, they make a connection that goes well beyond their shop owner-customer relationship. It is, at once, simple yet profound. The pacing of the scene, the acting, the images and all the pretty words combine to create a moment of genuine tenderness. How often do two men get to share a moment like that in a movie?
Harold Perrineau Jr. plays Rashid Cole, a lost young man who connects to Auggie through Paul, when he saves Paul’s life. The two become friends and, later, Paul sees an opportunity to pay back his debt to Rashid.
Characters come into the lives of each other and choose to stick around long enough to make a difference.
The final story, related to Paul by Auggie, himself, tops them all. It’s got magic, surprise and yes, a bushel full of warmth.
Most movies are a long stretch of dry dirt. This one is a flower garden.
3. Etre et Avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)
Two turtles slowly waddle across the spotless floor of an empty school room. For a documentary taking place in a small town – in rural France and mostly confined to the inside of a classroom in a one room schoolhouse – that opening image is a perfect example of form and content merging into one.
Overseeing a classroom of children, ranging in age from 4 to 11, can’t be easy, and yet, Mr. Lopez makes it look like a breeze.
Whether gently reminding a younger student that school work must be finished before one can play or bringing two older students, who just fought, to a place of empathy and understanding, Mr. Lopez is the teacher of your dreams.
The kids are adorable. Kids pretty much get that label automatically – we adults are not so lucky. And, here, in the midst of writing and arithmetic and crepe making lessons, these kids – Jojo, Marie, Letitia and the rest of the tiny pupils – never fail to tug at your heart.
What Philibert captures here is not only the beauty inherent in a quiet and unhurried life in a picturesque town in rural France, but the beauty inherent in a qualified and courteous adult patiently and carefully imparting knowledge to a child. Lessons made up of numbers and letters and lessons made up of emotions and actions all mingle together in Mr. Lopez’s classroom.
Many of the outdoor scenes in Etre et Avoir take place during the winter. The kids are shown in brief bits all bundled up against the cold carrying on in the playground or tobogganing. Inside the schoolhouse, it’s warm. It’s warm because of the four thick walls and because of a man determined to make it so.
Etre et Avoir is a warm blanket of a movie for those days when the cold has gotten to you.
4. The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999)
The wizard of weird. The sorcerer of strange. The conjurer of kooky? Any one of those titles could be applied to the David Lynch most people think of when they think of David Lynch. But, he has another side that, if not equally odd, is certainly equally compelling.
Incredibly, based on a true story, Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight, a simple man of 73, who has just heard that his brother, Lyle, has suffered a stroke. The two had a falling out some years back and Alvin wants to go visit him to make things right before it’s too late. Problem is, Alvin doesn’t have a driver’s license and his eyes are bad, anyway. Plus, there is no bus that runs from his small town of Laurens to his brother’s place in Mt. Zion – across the border into Wisconsin. But, Alvin does have a riding lawn mower.
Embarking on the 260 mile trip to Wisconsin, Alvin tows a small trailer of supplies – slow and steady – down cornfield flanked rural highways on a 1966 John Deere riding mower. His friends think he has lost his way. But, Alvin knows he has just found it.
A man needs a mission and, though Alvin’s mode of completing that mission is an odd one, that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. Actually, as it turns out, it makes it more meaningful.
Along the way, Alvin camps out under the stars, eats a lot of German sausage and runs into folks here and there.
The writing is exquisite, here. There’s a careful attention paid to the natural rhythms of speech and a real skillful and sensitive navigating around how conversations flow along with thoughts expressed both explicitly and implicitly. The poetry of simple words delivered with care and just the right amount of weight, homespun bits of wisdom and well placed moments of silence are all artfully woven into the exchanges throughout the film.
Farnsworth is wonderfully relaxed – each word out of his mouth carved in oak and soaked in a whiskey of well earned wisdom.
Lynch let’s it all breath. He trusts that the material and the actors will suffice and they do. They do in ways that are delightful and surprising and deeply moving.
Like watching the sunset over the distant hills. You can almost feel the warmth coming off of the screen.
All wheat and no chaff.
5. Danny Collins (Dan Fogelman, 2015)
Pacino! ‘Nuff said.
Neil Diamond must have been on the mind of writer/director Dan Fogleman when he took a very true story and bent it slightly out of shape to tell the tale of a bored and fabulously wealthy 60-something pop singer, Danny Collins, and his attempts to change his ways and make amends.
In the midst of the delicious ruins of big birthday bash that has pretty much seen its’ last snort and drink, Danny’s agent, played by Christopher Pummer, presents his weary and worn out client with an extra special gift – a just recently secured, lost letter that John Lennon wrote the then very green young singer some 40 years ago.
Stunned and inspired, Collins dumps his very young girlfriend, abandons his mansion and checks into a Hilton near Hillsdale, NJ.
From there, the well tanned and outfitted Collins tries to write some serious songs for a change and, most importantly, tries to establish a relationship with a now adult son who has never had him in his life.
Everyone is terrific – especially Pacino. In playing a man who is sick of himself and, yet, so full of life, so hopeful so late in life, and, so clearly in love with people, Pacino handles all the straightaways and tricky turns of his character with ease while still managing to keep his grip on the steering wheel real loose while doing it.
It’s the story of a man who has repeatedly reached the top of the charts and, yet, has still failed to crack the top 200 in what really counts in life.
A real overlooked gem. A sweet whisper of a film. A wool sweater of a story that you slip on when the temperature takes a dip.